Posted by: cynematic | July 30, 2009

Cookin’ at the Freesy: Fresh & Easy/Sur la Table

I’ve had my eye on the Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets grocery chain, a US outgrowth of the British chain Tesco, for quite some time…ever since they announced they’d launch in SoCal. (So had then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.)

Why? They had a stated strategy of wanting to build stores in underserved or ignored neighborhoods where the few other options might be a liquor/grocery store or an understocked, produceless discount grocer. As I understood the PR spin, Tesco was going to try to build a business bringing low-cost good quality food to people in moderate-to-low income neighborhoods; those neighborhoods are often “food deserts.” Good nutrition becomes a structural impossibility when healthy foods simply aren’t for sale where you live and shop. Also interesting to me was Tesco’s proposal to locate their processing and food prep operations in Segundo/Riverside, bringing lots of jobs to the Inland Empire.

I was a little surprised to be invited to a PR event introducing Fresh & Easy to a group of Los Angeles bloggers, but decided to go out of curiosity.

F&E, or Freesy, as we call it, has indeed ambitiously opened stores in a lot of communities around me–not all of them in upscale neighborhoods. There’s one near my parents’ retirement community in Orange County. There’s one near me in a community a couple of miles south, another in Pasadena, another in a working class community in the Eagle Rock area.

My loyalties mostly lie with Trader Joe, the organics line at Vons, my local farmer’s market, and I love the meats/fish and produce at Whole Foods. Not in that order. Yes, I realize Whole Foods is far from saintly. TJ’s too. However, in the categories I just mentioned, and for selection of obscure organic food/health & beauty products, the inventory is pretty comprehensive and high quality.

As for Freesy? Honey, you confuse me.

Freesy is more than a 7-11, but less than a Trader Joe’s. The stripped down, almost puzzlingly bare shelves and high ceilings scream out “wasted space” in a business with notoriously lean margins. I like the wide aisles–so different from the almost proudly congested, overstuffed aisles at TJ’s–but at the same time, I always feel like the space is too extravagant. Where’s the visual noise of bright food packaging that says to the average American consumer, “too many choices, not enough real difference”?

I kid, but am serious at the same time. It’s kind of right in the Famima spot (apart from Famima’s emphasis on Asian food): prepared food for a quick dinner pickup after work, as well as an edited selection of raw ingredients if you want to make something from scratch. In terms of size and selection, I bet Freesy would go over well in Manhattan, where many have West Coast Produce Envy and the visit to the Whole Foods with their Gaia-weeping carbon-footprint fruit-&-veg section is like a pilgrimage to Mecca. (Here in Cali, we urbanites are spoiled by true locavore riches from the Valleys nearby.) However, the comparison to Famima isn’t a happy one; Famima’s closing stores almost as quickly as they opened them during the subprime boom.

I’m guessing another reason Freesy doesn’t do so well here in Cali is precisely because of the strong and well-attended farmer’s market culture. The neighborhoods that are upscale are slavishly devoted to Whole Paycheck, Pavilions, Bristol Farms, or TJ’s; the modest and ethnic (and modestly ethnic) neighborhoods have their Vons, Albertson’s, “Jon’s,” 99 Ranch Asian supergroceries or Latino carnicerias. Then you have your super-inexpensive Food 4 Less groceries and the good old 99c store (which I love). And while I don’t shop at Costco, many people do.

If I had to take a guess as to what niche Freesy hopes to occupy, it’s that it aspires to be the Target of grocery stores. That is, it’s for the value shopper who doesn’t like to feel like a value shopper. I mean, you could buy paper towels at KMart, but you might feel oppressed by the stark fluorescent lighting, dingy floors, and haphazard, neglected-feeling placement of items on the shelves. So you’d go to Tar-zhay to buy your paper towels and walk away feeling so Gen Xly hip, what with the cheeky store-branded pseudo artisanal chocolates, the fun swingy Mossimo clothes and all.

Having shopped at Freesy before, I do have a few preconceptions of what they’re all about: it’s a mixed bag. There aren’t enough organic/local produce items among the fruit & veg offered. (However, there are several house-brand organic juices which are pretty good.) I personally like spicy food, so the prepared items I’ve tried (like the breakfast and other burritos) are too bland for me. But aside from that, Freesy offers some good values on staples, especially if you use the coupons they often mail out ($5 off a $25 purchase, sometimes $6 off a $30 purchase).

So, on to the blogger event sponsored by Fresh & Easy that prompted this post…

I’d never been to an event like this before. When I entered the demonstration kitchen at The Grove’s Sur La Table, I saw little work stations had been set up. I also knew there’d be a chef attending.

The menu

The menu

Below: ingredients set out for us. Also known as Performance Anxiety For Indifferent Cooks.

What, peanut sauce on a pizza?

What, peanut sauce on a pizza?

Pizza before

Pizza before

Pizza after

Pizza after

I wasn’t a huge fan of the salmon in peanut sauce. The salmon was fresh. I had no information on whether it was line caught or farmed. In general I don’t go for vaguely sweet-ish sauces on my fish unless it’s a crisp-fried Chinese-style sweet and sour fish. Me personally, I think I’d try the peanut sauce on a Thai noodle salad first as opposed to garnishing the fish with it.

Salmon with peanut sauce before

Salmon with peanut sauce before

Salmon with peanut sauce after

Salmon with peanut sauce after

Below: the vegetables used to accompany the chicken fingers. I forgot to ask if Freesy had a frozen ready-to-nuke short grain organic brown rice like they do at TJ’s, since Freesy is obviously competing with TJ’s head to head. What’s shown here is organic jasmine, a long grain, rather dry rice. And I have no idea as to the provenance of the chicken. (We usually don’t eat a lot of meat in our family, but when we make it at home we splurge on the best quality, hormoneless/antibiotic-free/uncaged stuff and eat small portions of it.)

Frozen vegetables and organic jasmine rice

Frozen vegetables and organic jasmine rice

Now *that's* what I'm talking about. Men who cook.

Now *that's* what I'm talking about. Men who cook.

Again, not a big fan of somewhat bland Mexican-ish food. Hel-lo? We live in LA! Melt-in-your-mouth dreamy tacos for $1.25!! Land of the gourmet taco truck! I used to feed my family on fresh-made fish tacos at a neighborhood joint–all three of us–for under $12. Drinks extra.

The beef fajitas Chef Mike made in the previous picture.

The beef fajitas Chef Mike made in the previous picture.

These chicken fingers I’d actually try, except I’d get creative with the breading. I’ve always loved naked croutons…wonder how the chicken fingers would taste with crouton breading? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

And again, my personal preference is to lose the apricot sauce.

Chicken fingers with apricot sauce.

Chicken fingers with apricot sauce.

Did I mention the desserts? They were truly the highlight of the night. (The free wine was also great…problem is, I can’t tell Two Buck Chuck from the good stuff.)

Below is a picture of the Freesy-made tiramisu, banana cream pie (which I really liked because the custard lacked the usual gummy texture exhibited by many cream pies reliant on corn starch as a binder), and chocolate cupcake.

Left: chocolate cucpcake. Middle (above): banana cream pie. Right: tiramisu.

Left: chocolate cucpcake. Middle (above): banana cream pie. Right: tiramisu.

The upshot? I’d buy frozen desserts, staples, and a few fill-in things at Freesy. If I liked less-seasoned prepared food, I’d probably try that sometimes too. But when I wasn’t wondering why they couldn’t take a few chances with their flavors like Trader J, I’d be musing that it’s a lost opportunity to sell Walker’s Crisps (Thai Lemongrass potato chips…To. Die. For.) or Cadbury chocolate–the kinds of things you can only get in a London supermarket.

See, Freesy needs to get a little personality. Get down wid yer funky Mary Quant self. And…don’t run from the UK and whatever your parent company Tesco’s record is there. If you’re setting apart desirable parking spaces next to the store’s front doors for hybrid cars in an effort to go green, then GO ALL THE WAY WITH IT. Don’t attempt window-dressing; don’t put your head in the sand if you have problems. The FreshandEasyFacts.com web people have damn good SEO; they’re on the same Google page as your official website.

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Responses

  1. […] conundrum when I was invited to a blogger event held by the Fresh and Easy grocery store chain. I ended up writing about Tesco, the UK corporate parent’s track record as well as some of the ac…. I’ll bet Fresh and Easy monitored my post; I have no idea if they’ll include me again […]


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